17 September 2004
Prime Minister Tony Blair's harmonious relations with Britain's unions disintegrated within hours of his speech to the Trades Union Congress in Brighton, when the leaders of 11 public sector unions blasted government plans to slash civil service jobs.
They threatened to bring the Prison Service 'to a halt' and co-ordinate strikes across local government in sympathy.
Union general secretaries also rejected what was described by FDA leader Jonathan Baume, representing senior Whitehall managers, as the government's 'spurious and false dichotomy' between back-office and frontline civil servants. Baume and others warned ministers that services would suffer if they ploughed ahead with the cuts.
The distinction is fundamental to the Treasury's plan to axe 104,500 posts by 2008, outlined by Chancellor Gordon Brown's Spending Review. Brown claims that slashing back-office staff would free resources for frontline services. But unions warned that neither they, nor the public, had fallen for the political rhetoric.
Baume said the cuts were simply a symbol of political posturing in the run-up to the next general election, and warned ministers they were 'tearing up the psychological contract that binds the civil service together'.
He added: 'With the NHS, for example, people say "get rid of bureaucrats and somehow that will make nurses and doctors operate more efficiently". It doesn't work like that. And I think it's dreadful that seems to be the shape the election campaign is taking'.
Baume still believes the civil service unions could negotiate changes to the planned cuts, but his colleagues in the Public and Commercial Services union this week said 'enough is enough'.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, announced on September 12 that his union would ballot for a national strike by his 300,000 members on November 5. That would be the first national strike by civil servants for more than a decade.
Serwotka claimed that attempts to negotiate with the government had failed because 'it is impossible to have a dialogue with the deaf'.
At a fiery Trades Union Congress fringe meeting on September 13, other union leaders said they would co-ordinate strike action with the civil service unions in sympathy. Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said his members would 'bring the Prison Service to a halt'.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, Britain's biggest union, said local government and NHS staff were under direct threat. 'The government and individual departments are not just dealing with civil service unions, they're dealing with all of the public service unions and all of the TUC unions. We will not sit back and allow our colleagues to be abused in this way.
'This is a united struggle and if that struggle leads to strike action, then so be it,' he warned. However, Prentis later said that a strike by Unison 'may be some way down the road'.
Opposition to the Treasury's proposals would disrupt what TUC general secretary Brendan Barber described as 'an otherwise harmonious' relationship between the Labour government and the unions.
During his speech on September 13, Blair praised the government's work with unions on the Warwick Accord, a series of provisional settlements on issues made at this summer's National Policy Forum.
He hit back at critics who claimed he had been distracted from national issues by international events. 'Even if I've never been away, it's time to show I'm back,' he said.